Why I Stopped Giving Zeros
Giving a zero for missed work can make it mathematically impossible for students to recover their grade; here’s what one teacher is doing instead.
On finals day, one of my students flew down the hall to tell my assistant principal that he had passed my psychology class with a C. He was a student who really struggled with how to “do school.” Because he had been convinced that he would fail from the beginning, his excitement over passing my class at the end of the school year was palpable. This transformation was due to one simple change to my grading practices: I stopped giving zeros for missing work as part of a larger commitment to adopting equitable grading practices.
What Are Equitable Grading Practices?
As part of a larger focus on equity, leaders in my district have started the process of evaluating grading practices. Two years ago, as part of serving on my high school’s leadership team, we read Joe Feldman’s book Grading for Equity. Last year, with the support of the administration, I took a hard look at my grading practices. That experience transformed my thinking about how and what I grade.
Equitable grading practices separate the behavior from the assessment of knowledge. These practices emphasize the belief that all students can learn and meet learning targets. According to experts, traditional grading with the well-known bell curve and 100-point scale is inherently inequitable. In a 100 point scale, the first 40 percentage points are divided equally: A is 90–100 percent, B is 89–80 percent, down to a D at 69–60 percent. When students get a zero, it’s not a similar 10-percent reduction but a 60-percent reduction. Students who receive a zero are often mathematically unable to recover their grade. Students are rewarded or punished for their compliance and behavior, instead of assessed on the acquisition of knowledge.
Revising My Grading Practices
Understanding the problems of traditional grading practices is one thing; making the changes to more equitable grading is quite another. I had long given up awarding extra credit or docking students for turning in work late, practices that Feldman argues are inequitable. I have always allowed retakes on assessments. But I did give credit for assignments that Feldman would call “practice,” and I did give zeros for missing work. When I saw his mathematical explanation against the traditional grading scale, I knew I needed to make some changes.
As part of this process, I switched to not giving a zero for missing assignments. I was up front with my students and parents from the start. I explained in my syllabus, at Parent Night, and at conferences what it meant mathematically to give a zero and exactly why I would not be doing that.
Getting the message out was challenging. It was immediately clear that I was fighting against our student information system (SIS), which uses a 100-point scale. This meant changing my lowest grade to 50 percent instead of a zero. But to students, parents, and anyone looking at the SIS, it appeared as though the student had turned in the assignment and scored 50 percent on it. This led to repeated conversations about missing assignments.
As the year progressed, I saw a noticeable change in my lowest-performing students. As other teachers were seeing their students quit trying, mine were seeing the results of their efforts as their grades went from 50 percent to 60 percent and then from 60 percent to 70 percent. Students who had struggled early on thanked me for helping them to pass my class.
My biggest change this year is to go to 100 percent summative grading and give no credit for practice. I am working hard to get my students to pull their attention away from how many points an assignment is worth and toward what learning is expected and why they need it. Students can retake any summative assessment, and the score earned is the most recent attempt.
Practice, participation, and formative behavior are still important concepts in my class, but tracking them is outside of the grade. These concepts are assessed as skills using rubrics and tracked at 0 percent in the SIS. Retakes are dependent on students doing the practice first. Students should reflect on their behavior and practice and self-assess to see the connection between the practice and their performance.
A Slow Process: Districts across the country are finding that changing to grading for equity is a process that is not easily done overnight. Teachers feel a strong sense of ownership in their grading practices. They have a lot of autonomy in the process, and that is a difficult thing to give up. This school year, professional development at the high school level is centered on equitable grading. For the first professional development of the year, teachers read articles written by Feldman and others about equitable grading practices. As the year progresses, staff will have choices about which topics to learn more about and are encouraged to make one change in their grading practices over the course of the year.
Key Takeaways: Encourage staff to make small changes. Choosing one change from this list is a good place to start. Then, track the results, not just in grades but in student behavior, mental health, and absenteeism.
- Stop giving a zero for missing work.
- Consider using rubrics and a four-point system instead of the 100-point scale.
- Stop giving points for practice.
- Allow retakes.
- Separate behavior from the assessment of knowledge in the grading system.
- Use self-assessment and peer assessment.
I still fight the perception from stakeholders that I am giving students something for nothing when I “award” 50 percent for missing work. But in my experience, this criticism is unfounded. I didn’t see a large increase in students getting As and Bs. I did see a number of students who would have failed instead persevere and pass with Ds and Cs. For me and those students, that one change made all the difference.
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Beasley, M., et al. (2021). Graduation must depend on learning, not time. EducationWeek.
Burke, M. (2022). Letter grades on way out? Why some University of California departments may use alternatives. EdSource.
Torres, C. (2022). No points off for late work. Edutopia.
Zalaznick, M. (2022). Why 2 districts say moving to equitable grading gives students more hope. District Administration.